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O.C.R. May Invite Districts To Change Their 'Lau' Plans

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Washington--The Reagan Administration may invite more than 500 school districts to renegotiate longstanding agreements governing their bilingual-education curricula, following Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's call for more diversity in the programs, an Education Department spokesman said last week.

"The idea is being contemplated of notifying school districts in writing of their right to renegotiate plans," according to Thomasina V. Rogers, a spokesman for the department's office for civil rights.

Most of the agreements were reached in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1974 Lau v. Nichols ruling, which said that limited-English-proficient (lep) children are entitled under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to special services.

The agreements--in line with federal policy set in the 1970's but never codified in statutes or regulations--primarily call for transitional bilingual education.

"We shall take care, in the course of ensuring the civil rights of minority-national-origin students are respected, that we do not impose a particular method of instruction," said Mr. Bennett last month in a major policy address on bilingual education.

"We believe that local school officials will make valid, reasonable decisions about the children that they're legally required to serve," said Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer at a subsequent briefing. "We are willing to fund any approach that a school district can give us that fits the [legal] requirements."

Some civil-rights advocates said Mr. Bennett is sending a signal to local officials that they can decrease their aid to lep students.

But because of the possibility of a lawsuit if a district curtails its bilingual-education programs, "any school district has to be very careful before going down the garden path with Mr. Bennett," warned Lori Orum, senior education analyst with the National Council of LaRaza, a Hispanic advocacy organization.

Notification Contemplated

While no final decision has been reached on the proposed letters to the districts, Ms. Rogers said, such a step would be consistent with Mr. Bennett's speech and past Administration policy.

Ms. Rogers also noted that the department's regional civil-rights directors "have been aware of the fact that there was flexibility and that school districts could come in at any time and renegotiate their plans."

After the Lau ruling, officials in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare devised the so-called "Lau remedies" to guide districts in complying with the Court's decision. At the time, the threat of federal intervention encouraged districts with large numbers of lep students to sign agreements stating they would comply with the guidelines.

The remedies were based on a 1970 ocr policy memorandum and published in the Federal Register as proposed regulations in 1980. But former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell withdrew them in 1981, saying that the rules were too burdensome. The department has yet to announce any new policy for ensuring the civil rights of lep students under Title VI.

A former ocr official, who asked not to be identified, asserted that during the Reagan Administration there has been virtually no enforcement of laws ensuring the educational rights of lep children. He added that because of budget and staff cuts, ocr probably lacks the expertise and the personnel to renegotiate the bilingual-education agreements on a large scale.

Districts Warned

Civil-rights advocates compare the move ocr is contemplating to the Justice Department's bid earlier this year to get municipal agencies to scrap affirmative-action hiring plans. In that instance, officials of a number of cities quickly responded that they were committed to their current policies and did not wish to change them.

Observers predicted last week that the Education Department's offer would go largely unheeded, but they said some school districts would probably seek to renegotiate their agreements. "At least a couple" of large cities "would take them up on it," said Michael Casserly, legislative associate with the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 35 of the largest urban districts.

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